prerna_srigyan Annotations

What questions and frustrations does this text leave you with?

Friday, May 15, 2020 - 12:11am

(1) I am mostly frustrated by Spivak's, and even the collective's exclusion of Dalit thought and literature. I think that the argument of: “There simply are no subaltern testimonials, memoirs, diaries, or official histories”: is both incorrect and dangerous. Both Spivak and the Subaltern Studies overdetermine the influence of bourgeois nationalism and of figures like Gandhi, who were mainstream but not necessarily radical or even the most popular. In the Spivak reader, for example, there is no mention of Ambedkar's work, who as a Buddhist Dalit scholar and the architect of the constitution of the Indian nation-state, is a subaltern figure who spoke and wrote fiercely against both colonialism and the caste system. There is now the field of Dalit Studies which writes against the grain of this exclusion. The book Decolonizing Anarchism offers an anti-authoritarian narrative of decolonization, offering accounts of social movements and anti-colonial thought that advocated for complete liberation from the British empire, a goal later appropriated by mainstream liberal politics. 

(2) I wonder how to perform a comparison of recuperative scholarship like that of the Subaltern Studies collective with that of Black Radical Tradition? Is it possible to read Cedric Robinson's Black Marxism in conjunction with Ranajit Guha's Peasant Insurgency? What differences exist between articulating a shared subalternity and global Blackness? 

(3) What kinds of pedagogy does Spivak point us to? 

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How does this text inform our understanding of COVID-19?

Thursday, May 14, 2020 - 11:56pm

I think Spivak could offer two interventions:

(1) First, her notion of "cognitive failure" is helpful to understand how COVID-19 is unfolding. For her, it is not being able to grapple the object of analysis: “Unless the subject separates from itself to grasp the object, there is no cognition, indeed no thinking, no judgment.” She writes this statement to talk about the Marxist and anti-humanist tendency to abhor cognitive failure and see it as inducing paralysis. For Marx and Gramsci, for example, this has been a question of the proletariat class recognizing that they are excluded from the labor of their own bodies, through which their shared consciousness can arise.

For Spivak, however, through her critique of the Subaltern Studies collective,  there is no escape from cognitive failure. Just as it is okay that the collective will not be able to speak for the subaltern as much as there is value in it, it is alright to not be able to grapple. The COVID-19 moment is instructive of failures upon failures: failure of neoliberalism, of the nation-state, of parochial activism, of scholarly projects. It is a failure of not being able to do anything even though we have a shared consciousness of failure. It is a failure of being able to be a person, or even being mourned with dignity. Spivak, through her stubborn insistence on being able to build from failure and residues, says that our usual ways of performing scholarship, activism, and subalternity will not work. We have to be able to come together from a point of exhaustion and failure. 

(2) Second, Spivak opens up the question of how we construct oppression and exclusion in the archive, especially if the oppressed and excluded figure is not present. The way COVID-19 is unfolding builds upon histories of institutional and informational opaqueness. How do we read absences of the archive, or "against the grain", against institutional and informational opaqueness?

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How does this text inform our understanding of transnationality?

Thursday, May 14, 2020 - 11:34pm

Spivak's text helps us read against methodological nationalism. I understand methodological nationalism as a problem of containment, or reading a place/scale as containers of an analytic. Arjun Appadurai has the inverse notion of "theoretical metonymy", or analytics as containers of place (if you had to study caste, you would go to India; or to study segementation, you would go to an African country). Spivak's tactic of "reading against the grain" (which questions the author and the text as authorities) of the works by Subaltern Studies tells us that even though their project comes out of a particular history of the Indian subcontinent, the figure of the voracious subaltern they build accidentally has the potential to build solidarity in similar contexts, for example, the independent peasant movement in Mexico:

"it would be interesting if, instead of finding their only internationalism in European history and African anthropology (an interesting disciplinary breakdown), they were also to find their lines of contact, let us say, with the political economy of the independent peasant movement in Mexico.”

I think Spivak's point is that such solidarities might not be collective consciousness in the way Marxist thought writes about class consciousness. Rather they would be based on "practical exigencies", allowing people to move in and out of scholarly and activist projects and to not mobilize subalternity for scholarly and activist gatekeeping. It not only allows for shifting goals and shifting subject formations, but sees this non-closure, this complicity which does not halt at the closure of an essay, as strategic to political organization. 

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What is the main argument, narrative and effect of this text? What evidence and examples support these?

Thursday, May 14, 2020 - 11:04pm

(in my very limited understanding): Spivak offers a critique of the Subaltern Studies collective by "reading with and against the grain" of the texts produced by the collective. I like this overview of the collective's history, key concepts, critiques and an annotated bibliography of their texts. The collective broadly offered a reading of colonialism in the Indian subcontinent which sought to recover a history of the subaltern (which for them is the peasant exploited alike by a colonial and indigenous elite, insurgent against both colonial and feudal domination; derived from Gramsci's Italian peasant) from the colonial archive, even though the voice of the subaltern was noticeably absent in such archives. Their intervention was primarily against an "elite historiography" that had narrated nationalism as an upper-class, upper-caste project, but had failed to represent dissent and resistance from peasant rebellions.

Their consequent move was therefore not only to offer other archives for writing a subaltern history but also to reframe key moments in elite historiography to reveal the presence of the subaltern. This, they thought, would reveal also the presence of a subaltern consciousness and solidarity, which was as much, if not more critical to decolonization in the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere. The Subaltern Studies collective's larger theoretical and political commitment thus centered around the question: How can we read absences of the archive to articulate consciousness and solidarity?

Spivak's object of analysis are the collective's texts. She argues that historans of the subaltern want to give us a theory of change (broader social change but also particular shifts and tensions between feudalism, capitalism, colonialism). But what they end up doing is offering a theory of consciousness in line with Marxist and anti-humanist thought, assuming that collective consciousness, through a recognition that things are not what they seem to be, leads to change.

Spivak argues that this is a strategic move, and that the collective must not abandon the subaltern subject as an object of analysis. But what they need to do is not speak of the subaltern as a monolith, not assume that subaltern consciousness is collective, much less a radical consciousness. Nowhere is this more lucidly expressed than in her analysis of how women are written within the collective's texts, where they are present but as passive objects of exchange over and through whose bodies class consciousness formed. It is also present in what I think is her most damning critique of the collective: "the transactional quality of interconflicting metropolitan sources often eludes the (post)colonial intellectual". Spivak is calling out the collective for not reading/citing other scholars who also attempt to articulate a radical anti-hegemonic consciousness. This is the double bind of the subaltern for Spivak: capturing it with careful historiographic work at the same time pointing to its absence. For Spivak this is not a point of paralysis, but a point to start from, acknowledging that there is no way out of the inadequacy of representation. 

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What quotes from this text are exemplary or particularly evocative?

Thursday, May 14, 2020 - 9:20pm

Quotes about Spivak's stated purpose in the essay

“The chain of complicity does not halt at the closure of an essay.” 

“Throughout these pages it has been my purpose to show the complicity between subject and object of investigation—the Subaltern Studies group and subalternity”

Quotes on "reading against the grain"

"since a "reading against the grain" must forever remain strategic, it can never claim to have established the authoritative truth of a text, it must forever remain dependent upon practical exigencies, never legitimately lead to a theoretical orthodoxy.” [Spivak cautions against reading that leads to fixed ideas and that sees the author as authoritative]

“You can only read against the grain if misfits in the text signal the way.”

“I read Subaltern Studies against its grain and suggest that its own subalternity in claiming a positive subject-position for the subaltern might be reinscribed as a strategy for our times. What good does such a reinscription do? It acknowledges that the arena of the subaltern's persistent emergence into hegemony must always and by definition remain heterogeneous to the efforts of the disciplinary historian. The historian must persist in his efforts in this awareness that the subaltern is necessarily the absolute limit of the place where history is narrativized into logic” [Spivak argues that the collective has to recognize that they will never be able to come at a true “subaltern consciousness” nor is such a task desirable]

“Reading the work of Subaltern Studies from within but against the grain, I would suggest that elements in their text would warrant a reading of the project to retrieve the subaltern consciousness as the attempt to undo a massive historiographic metalepsis and "situate" the effect of the subject as subaltern. I would read it, then, as a strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest" [Spivak interrogates the collective's political stakes in recovering the subaltern from the colonial archive]

Quotes where Spivak critiques the Subaltern Studies' citational practices

"poststructuralist theories of consciousness and language suggest that all possibility of expression, spoken or written, shares a common distancing from a self so that meaning can arise—not only meaning for others but also the meaning of the self to the self. I have advanced this idea in my discussion of "alienation." These theories suggest further that the "self" is itself always production rather than ground'"

“it would be interesting if, instead of finding their only internationalism in European history and African anthropology (an interesting disciplinary breakdown), they were also to find their lines of contact, let us say, with the political economy of the independent peasant movement in Mexico.”

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What are the author/s’ institutional and disciplinary positions, intellectual backgrounds and scholarly scope?

Thursday, May 14, 2020 - 9:09pm

In Spivak's own words: " Situated within the current academic theater of cultural imperialism, with a certain carte d'entree into the elite theoretical ateliers in France, I bring news of power lines within the palace" 

For understanding Spivak's role in a Spivakian way, I like the article Everybody’s Afraid of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Reading Interviews with the Public Intellectual and Postcolonial Critic. As someone who circulates a lot in western continental philosophy-associated academia, Spivak has been the subject of numerous interviews and analyses: "This article reads Spivak through her interviews, a formidable body of work in itself, where she not only articulates strategic essentialism but performs it". 

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